Will we still need to sleep in 50 years?

Growth in the global wellness market supports this, rising 12.8% in the last two years, and the ‘sleep market’ in the US is predicted to grow an average of 4.7% annually over the next five years.

We know that sleep isn’t simply a battery recharge.

It’s not an isolated area of us that sleeps which we could swap out for a fully charged one.

Neither can we do a quick reboot where the brain content is uploaded to the cloud. Instead sleep is necessary for an optimal functioning of the entire body and the brain.

Sleep enables us to restore and recover any changes or losses from the waking day. And while we still don’t fully understand its function(s), we know it is a biological imperative for our physical health, cognitive performance and emotional wellbeing.

For example, sleep facilitates the pruning of synapses and clearance of toxins in the brain.

Without sleep, hormones such as cortisol and insulin get out of kilter increasing the risk of diabetes and other diseases. Losing sleep can make you more susceptible to everything from catching a cold to developing cancers.

Sleep deprivation also causes irritability, being cranky and ready to snap at one’s partner, children or local barista for failing to make the coffee just the way you like it and can have a bad effect on your ability to think clearly.

Staying awake for more than 17 hours produces performance impairments equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.05% – almost on the brink of the UK drink-driving limit.

Basically, going without sleep is like being drunk on the job. And it’s easy to see how that relates to loss of productivity. Living out of sync with your body clock further increases health and wellbeing risks.

For now, no scientist has found a way to trick the body into thinking it has slept or found a way around the symptoms but as a society, we also get caught up in the importance of time spent asleep.

When we talk of ‘optimal’ sleep, hours slept is usually the primary consideration. But it’s the quality of our sleep that plays perhaps an even bigger role – and clearly these processes go beyond what a battery pack can do.

How much sleep do we actually need and are we sleeping too little?

That’s difficult to answer as scientists are still unsure whether our sleep duration has changed from pre-industrial to industrial lifestyles.

We also do not really know what the optimal sleep duration is. The recommendation is seven to nine hours for a healthy adult and acknowledges that people differ in the amount of sleep they need.

The best way to know if you are sleeping less than you need is when you wake up feeling unrefreshed and need to have long lie-ins on free days.

Sleep need is impacted by many factors: biology, the environment and social demands all play a role. Considering current work demands it may well be that sleep need has increased as a result of it.

Data for the UK and US report an increase in sleep duration for many parts of the population.

Other possible factors contributing to the observed findings include improved science communications and sleep awareness campaigns, and more interest in sleep and the benefits it brings.

The future of sleep

Great innovations around sleep are those that advance the measuring and understanding of sleep and we all will benefit from them.

New discoveries will open the door to more effective and personalised treatments for sleep disorders and circadian misalignment – the body clock being out of sync with the external day –  as they allow for better at-home testing involving non-invasive, contactless devices, wearables and smartphone apps that help users learn more about their sleep.

In that way technology grounded in sleep science can help improve sleep.

We haven’t yet reached a point where we can ‘solve the secret’ to not sleeping – if ever.

But the real question is, why do we have to ‘solve’ it? Sleep allows the body and mind to rest, to replenish and recover.

If we spent a life in constant wakefulness that would have serious implications on our mental health and wellbeing, with no time to nourish oneself away from distraction and the necessity to produce or consume.

Is that what we really want?

The priority should be better education and a cultural shift on sleep, to support people in developing their sleep sense – educating them on sleep so that they can sleep naturally.

Using technological innovations can assist what should come naturally but the risk is it becomes another piece of tech they are reliant on.

However, scientists alone cannot get sleep up people’s priority list. Society as a whole has to make changes to lifestyle and working practices. Employees, employers, institutions and governments also have to make sleep a priority.

There is still a long way to go but there are signs that we are living in a culture that is not only work smart but also becoming sleep smart and where work practices are informed by individual sleep needs to promote both health and performance.

Sleep is, yet again, becoming a valued activity.

Dr Katharina Lederle is the founder and director of Somnia, a sleep expert and author

The Future Of Everything

This piece is part of Metro.co.uk’s series The Future Of Everything.

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